Advocates worry about language access at polls

Presidential candidates are listed in English, Spanish and Chinese on the ballot of one of New York's lever-operated mechanical voting machines.
Presidential candidates are listed in English, Spanish and Chinese on the ballot of one of New York's lever-operated mechanical voting machines. Seth Wenig / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Flushing section of Queens provides a vivid display of the many languages of New York City: A church offers services in English, Chinese and Spanish. One business sign after another is written in Chinese. And on Election Day, voters will cast ballots in a Taiwanese community center.

Diverse cities such as New York face daunting challenges Tuesday as they try to ensure that signs and ballots are printed in other languages including Spanish, Korean and Chinese, and that interpreters are available to help voters whose English fluency is limited.

Some advocates of minority voter participation are concerned over whether election jurisdictions around the country will be adequately prepared to deal with the issue in an election that will have high turnout and waves of newly registered voters, many of them immigrants.

"I'm one of those people that thinks it's going to be a major, major problem this year, the scope of which we have never seen before," said Cesar Perales, president and general counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF, formerly known as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions that have a certain number of residents who speak a language other than English and who have limited proficiency in English to provide all election materials in that language, and to provide assistance such as interpreters.

Thirty states have jurisdictions that fall under the language requirements, according to the latest Census list, from 2002. That includes Florida, where Miami-Dade County must have material in Spanish, and neighboring Broward County must provide it for Hispanic and Seminole communities.

Meeting requirements
In New York, the Bronx must offer material in Spanish; Brooklyn and Manhattan must offer it in Spanish and Chinese; and Queens has to have it in Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

The Department of Justice said this past week that its Civil Rights Division will send more than 800 observers and department personnel to 59 jurisdictions in 23 states on Tuesday to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act, including its minority language provisions.

Advocates say there have been problems in past election in availability of foreign-language signs and properly trained interpreters.

"Compliance with the language provision is spotty at best," said Nina Perales, southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Some do a good job, some don't do anything."

"I think it's way down on the list" as a priority, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project.

In New York City, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund sued the city's Board of Elections in 2006, alleging that the agency didn't properly fulfill requirements to provide language help for Asian-Americans with limited English proficiency and that Asian-Americans encountered discrimination when they tried to vote. That lawsuit was settled, with the city changing some of its procedures, including where it assigns translators.

"Everybody believes this is a better system, now the question becomes each year to make sure it works," said Steven Richman, general counsel for the board.

Rosanna Rahmouni, election day operations coordinator at the New York City board, said 759 Chinese interpreters, 160 Korean interpreters, and 1,315 Spanish interpreters are expected at precincts across the city Tuesday.

In addition, she said, all signs in every poll site around the city are printed in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean, whether it's a language-designated precinct or not. "To me it didn't matter, you have voters who speak that language in all sites," she said.

Margaret Fung, executive director of AALDEF, said she was "cautiously optimistic" the situation would be better this year in New York, but was worried about other places around the country, especially with increased turnout.

"The numbers are really going to be much bigger than people expect," she said.

'You will be heard'
Advocates also pointed out that problems could arise in places not covered by the federal requirement for materials in different languages.

"You have to remember the fact that the coverage formulas are all triggered every 10 years," said Efrain Escobedo, senior director of civic engagement for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "A lot of the populations with language needs are growing much more rapidly than you could keep up with using the ... census."

At a recent Asian American Legal Defense Fund training session in New York, law students and lawyers packed a room to learn about the issues and what role they could play on Election Day.

For Shelley Agarwala, who became a U.S. citizen along with her family in 2000, it was easy to imagine the reaction if her parents had faced obstacles when they went to vote for the first time.

"I could see my parents if they were turned away just being devastated by that and not wanting to ever wanting to participate again," she said. "Being able to vote, it's a milestone, you feel like you have a say in this country, you will be heard."